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As Time Goes By: High School Girl - Part One

Eileen Perrin tells of becoming a high school girl in the days preceding the onset of World War Two.

To read more of Eileen's memories, recorded in vivid and absorbing detail, please click on As Time Goes By in the menu on this page.

In July 1934 my friend Louie and I won scholarships at St.Judes’ C.of E.Girls School and in the following September started in Form 3 of Highbury Hill High School.

Dressed in our school uniform, wearing black velour hats ready for the winter, to be exchanged for straw panamas in summer, we waited for the low-decker bus from Mildmay Grove to Highbury Clock Tower, then walked up Highbury Hill to school.

On the brass plaque outside the school gate it read ‘Home and Colonial Schools’. These were established in 1836 by a Miss Mayo, who impressed and inspired, (as was her brother Dr.Mayo), with the work of Johann Pestalozzi of Zurich, Switzerland, opened a training school for lady teachers, endeavouring to follow his educational principles with insistence that observation was the basis of all knowledge.

When we were on the bus I always noticed the boys, who got off the stop before us. None of us ever exchanged a word, not even to make a remark out loud. We girls considered any boy not wearing his school cap to be a bit of a Don Juan, who probably knew his way about, and were a little in awe at such audacity. Our school ruled that uniform was to be worn correctly at all times. If we were caught by a prefect without our hats we were given lines and reported to the head of our house.

Going into the cloakroom, we hung hat, blazer and plimsolls in their shoe bag on a numbered peg, changing our outdoor black lace-ups for house shoes with a one bar strap in soft black leather. Later on a navy blue cotton overall for Science went on the peg.

Louie and I always dressed correctly - she even neater, her hair always trim in a short bob with a fringe. I believe heredity will out. Her mother was brought up in a police orphanage and in 1941 Louie joined the W.A.T.S. and became a corporal. It was not until the 1980s she told us that during the war she worked at Bletchley Park on breaking the German secret codes, having kept the secret for over forty years.

Another friend Elsie Knight also joined the W.A.T.S. Her grandfather was once the Chief of Police in the convict colony on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Above the school crest over the platform in the Assembly Hall we could not fail to be impressed by the words that implied we should have a fighting spirit with a sense of dogged determination. It read ‘After victory tighten your helmet cords’. From time to time the quote, slightly altered, has been a source of amusement in my family.

Our schoolrooms were built around a small central quadrangle. The school moved up and down stairs before or following Assembly or at recreation and prefects on the landings reminded us to ‘Keep to the right in single file.’

All the classrooms had large windows, looking out on the netball courts, Highbury Hill, the playground, or the trees in Highbury Fields. Each girl had a separate desk. There were no pictures on the walls, only five charts showing the progress of each ‘house’ of the school. At the end of each school year the house with the most points won a silver cup to display in the Assembly Hall on its shelf on the wall, each with its own shield and crest above it. I was in Nightingale House and Louie was in Newton. The other three houses were Tennyson, Raleigh and Mayo (after the schools founder).

Every Spring the sunshine streamed in through the windows overlooking Highbury Fields where the chestnuts were in tiny leaf, in contrast to winter days of fog or rain, with all the lights on at mid-morning and girls sitting on the radiators at break.

We had a tuck shop - a trestle table outside the gym, and once a week Mum would give me threepence to buy a Mars bar. MilkyWays were only tuppence but not half so enjoyable. Some girls had tuckshop chocolate every day, usually the paying girls.

At dinner break we sat at tables in the school hall where Louie and I ate our sandwiches. We never had dinner money for a hot school meal, served on the other side of the hall.

In the early years we played rounders, and as the years wore on, when we were large enough to fit the equipment, we played hockey. Netball and hockey, rounders and tennis, were sports at which I did not excel, not being fast enough on my feet. At hockey I was stuck in goal, with leg pads from ankle to thigh. I don’t recall us doing much for our houses, as neither Louie nor I did swimming, so silver cups meant very little to us.

Every morning as Form 3 mistress called the register we answered ‘Present’ before filing out to morning assembly, to sing a hymn, and to listen to a short Bible reading by the head mistress Miss Kyle. Every Friday after assembly, we remained in the hall to listen to a piece of classical music. This was the start of my continuing love of music. We remained in our form room for most classes and when the teacher arrived we all had to stand up to greet her.

I remember joining Islington library. The first book I borrowed was The African Queen, a wonderful story which was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I read all of H V Morton’s books, starting with In Search of England. I did not use the school library very much.

Mum and I still went to the cinema enjoying the Goldwyn Follies, Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals, Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry V111, H G Wells's The War of the Worlds and films with gangster George Raft and drama queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Then we became fans of the new heart throb, crooner Bing Crosby.

By taking a bus up to Essex Road we could go to the Carlton cinema where an organist played during the interval, rising up in front of the stalls. Sometimes we went to the fabulous Finsbury Park Astoria where the foyer had mosaic tiles and a goldfish pool in the centre. In the auditorium, with its deep blue star-lit sky, on either side of the stage there were flowery balconies draped with Spanish shawls.

In 1935 when King George 5th and Queen Mary celebrated their silver jubilee some of the Highbury girls, including myself, were taken to see the procession and stood on the grass bordering the flower beds opposite Buckingham Palace.
Where I lived in Islington, there was a street party, one of many all round London. Trestle tables were set out along the centre of the roadway, beneathy bunting strung from the top windows of houses. Everyone brought out chairs. There were paper hats and streamers, dozens of Union Jacks. Neighbours contributed food - plenty of fish paste sandwiches, currant buns, Swiss rolls, biscuits and lemonade. Someone paid for all the children to have an ice cream.

A piano was brought out so that we could have a singsong.

Each child was given a white silver jubilee mug upon which was a picture of the King and Queen and the royal coat of arms.

My family started to holiday each year on the Isle of Wight, staying in Ryde with Mr. and Mrs. Cotton, taking a weekly season ticket on the round-the -island steam train. We went over for the last time in the summer of 1939, just before the second world war.


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